Fritts: Government Action on DTV

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Las Vegas -- A wee bit more government, please.

That was the central message delivered Monday by National Association of
Broadcasters president Edward O. Fritts in a speech at the National Association
of Broadcasters' convention here that promised a prolonged digital-television
transition without targeted government action.

Fritts -- who also touched on the industry's internal divisions, as well as
its political struggles in Washington, D.C. -- pointed to three issues that he
said threatened wrapping up the digital-TV shift by 2006.

He called on Washington policymakers to force cable operators to carry both
analog- and digital-TV signals; to require digital-TV tuners in new TV sets; and
to mandate compatibility between cable systems and digital-TV sets.

'I submit that if we follow the government time line, there has to be minimal
government intervention to facilitate the needs of consumers,' Fritts said.

All 1,288 local commercial TV stations need to be beaming digital signals by
next May, yet only about 170 are on the air in digital as part of an estimated
$16 billion conversion capping with the giveback of analog spectrum in 2006 or
when 85 percent of TV households can receive digital TV signals, whichever is
later.

Fritts predicted that if the NAB is unsuccessful at persuading the federal
government to change its policies, the digital-TV transition 'will be elongated
over many, many years,' thus postponing the date when the analog spectrum can be
released to the wireless industry.

'The transition to digital in this country has been handled about as
effectively as California handled the deregulation of energy,' he said.

In January, the Federal Communications Commission refused to impost dual
must-carry on cable operators, although the agency is studying the matter
further. The commission is also reviewing whether to mandate the inclusion of
digital-TV turners and to force compatibility between cable and consumer
digital-TV receivers.

Important Capitol Hill lawmakers are divided on the tuner issue. House Energy
and Commerce Committee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) opposes such a step, saying
that it would add $200 to DTV sets. Yet, Rep. Rich Boucher (D-Va.), a key player
on media issues, told an NAB convention audience that a tuner mandate was a step
'we absolutely have to take.'

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